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Hearing is Believing

Parshat Mishpatim opens with a discussion of the laws of the Hebrew slave. According to the Torah, a Hebrew could become a slave either in order to pay back that which he had stolen or in order to pay back a debt. The normative term for a Hebrew slave was a maximum of six years. Under certain circumstances, the Hebrew (male) slave could refuse manumission, a decision the Torah frowned upon, requiring a special ceremony which bound the person to slavery in perpetuity (until the Jubilee year): “And if the slave should solemnly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go free.’ His master shall make him approach the gods (here understood to mean “judges”) and make him approach the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve in perpetuity.” (Exodus 21:5-6)

The Torah does not explain the significance of ear piercing in this instance, but certain of the rabbinic sages found profound symbolic meaning in this act. One particular allegory (symbolic representation) in the name of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is used in four rabbinic sources to produce two different messages. Here we will examine the two earliest sources, both from the period of the Mishnah.

In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, we find: “And why should the ear of all of the body parts be pierced? Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said in an allegory (k’min homer): The ear that heard ‘don’t steal’ (Exodus 20:13) and went and stole, it alone shall be pierced of all of the body parts.” (Nezikin 2, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 253) According to this reading, the man sinned by transgressing one of the commandments heard explicitly at Sinai, resulting in his having been sold into slavery to pay his debt. Symbolically, since the ear failed to protect the man from sin which caused this fate, it is the body part which was marked for punishment. The sin here is in disregarding God’s commandment.

The other early version of this midrash is found in the Tosefta Bava Kamma 7:5-6 (Lieberman ed. pp. 29-30): “[Five things Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say as an allegory (k’min homer)] … And it says: ‘And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl – and what is different about the ear that it of all the parts of the body shall be pierced? Since it heard at Mount Sinai: For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants (Leviticus 25:55) And he caste off from himself the yoke of Heaven and took on the yoke of flesh and blood, therefore Scripture says: “The ear should come and be pierces for not observing what it has heard. Another interpretation: He did not want to serve his Creator; so, he should come and be enslaved to his (sons) [fellows – according to Lieberman’s emendation].

Here, too, the ear is at fault, but the crime is on an entirely different plain. When a person performs an act which causes them to voluntarily accept upon themselves the role of a slave to another human being, it is to be considered an idolatrous act since the role of master is reserved exclusively for God. [How much more so, the person who takes the role of master over others!]

In both instances, the ear is singled out for culpability because symbolically, it is the receptor and filter for the messages we take in from outside of ourselves. Since the religious experience at Sinai was aural, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai puts the burden of responsibility for abiding by God’s message and doing what is right on the ear.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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